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The Sorry State of the American Church

What I am pasting below is an essay from long ago that I posted elsewhere.  It’s old, but I wanted it on this blog for reference sake.


I have been asked to write this note. I cannot write as long of a note as is required. My thinking here is years in the making. I am beginning with a ‘clean slate’ here, not reacting to previous notes, and picking the starting point without any other baggage.

Put simply, I contend that the missing ingredient in the American Church today is any robust understanding and consequently a lack of application, of Biblical Love.

Open up your favorite book on Christian dogmatics. Flip to the index. Count up how many entries relate to ‘love.’ Now, count how many entries relate to ‘Baptism,’ ‘Salvation,’ ‘The Lord’s Supper,’ ‘The Church,’ etc. I have performed this exercise using the favored books of several mainline denominations, including the one that I chiefly adhere to. In all of these, the entries on these other issues outnumber ‘love’ by 3 to 1, 5 to 1, 10 to 1.

Then, look at the nature of the entries (for quantity is only a clue, quality still matters). In the defining documents of my own denomination, entries about ‘love’ are almost all desperate attempts to ensure that no one gets the idea that if you love one another you are engaging in works righteousness. Heaven’s no, anything but that. 😉

This despite the fact that Jesus says all men will know we are his disciples by our love for each other (John 13:34-35). This despite Paul saying, “Now these three remain, faith, hope and love, BUT THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE.”

Quick, check the number of entries for ‘faith’ and compare it to the number of entries on ‘love.’ In the defining collection of documents for my denom, faith outnumbers love about 9 to 1. A third of the references on ‘love’ are actually discussions on the relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘love.’

In short, the central ‘doctrine’ as proclaimed by the Scriptures, Love, is almost completely ignored by the Church. When have we seen a thorough systematic treatment of Love in the history of the Church like we have of the Incarnation, the Sacraments, Salvation? They are few and far between.

The general attitude is that we need no such instruction on ‘Love.’ Who doesn’t know what ‘Love’ is? Everyone knows there are three kinds of it, everyone knows that God’s is categorically different than our own, everyone knows… but do we? Have we invested the time and energy to let the Scriptures instruct us on this central teaching of the NT?

With few exceptions, I say no. And this, I believe, drives nearly every other problem the Church faces, both internally and externally.

Look at 1 John 3:16

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material blessings and sees his broth in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?”

And later: “For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” (4:20)

God’s love is categorically different than ours? If so, not in the sense it is normally meant! Here is the pattern: Jesus died for us, we too ought to die for our brother.

Maybe it is just a John and Jesus thing and Paul expressed a ‘new’ Christianity? Not so, consider Ephesians 5:1,

“BE IMITATORS OF GOD, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, JUST AS Christ loved us AND GAVE HIMSELF UP FOR US…”

Though it is with great pleasure that I can point to many examples of individual Christians exhibiting this ‘kind’ of love (in fact, I doubt there are really ‘kinds’) the systemic reality is I am afraid much different. It takes a lot of effort and a whole new way of thinking and a new mind to love as the Bible explains it and let’s face it, the structure of our civilization makes it difficult to implement. But Jesus laid out the promise: “By your love for each other, all men will know…”

Not, “by your doctrine…” or “by your distinctives…” or “by your worship style…” it is, emphatically, and consistently in the NT, BY YOUR LOVE. But who can love this way except by the power of God?

EXACTLY!

That is precisely why Jesus offers ‘love’ as the powerful demonstration of the supernatural in the world. For love like this is supernaturally empowered. The natural man cannot understand how one might die for another or be willing to give up material goods so extremely… such people must be madmen! Yet they appear to be sane… they appear to believe their own message.

This is what both those inside and outside the church are thinking: “They do not believe their own message.”

But this is what set the NT church apart. Consider that famous benchmark, so far out of reach, but which we all long for as Christians (and would render the atheist speechless in awe if seen today):

“They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. …. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of the people. AND THE LORD ADDED TO THEIR NUMBER DAILY THOSE WHO WERE BEING SAVED.” Acts 2:42-47

This is Love in action. The first of many clarifications: Note, this isn’t Love out of context, as though you could abandon the apostle’s teaching and that would be ok. But the apostle’s teaching entailed this sort of response within the fellowship. This is my point: “Love”, too, is a component of the apostle’s teaching. Devotion to the fellowship is a part of the apostle’s teaching (see also for example Gal. 6:10, 1 Peter 1:22, 1 John 3-4… This is Jesus, Paul, Peter, John…

Now the protest: But this is sheer legalism! I was bluntly told this only recently. But the speaker apparently forgot that even if something is Law that doesn’t mean it is out of place. What I mean is that if the Church needs a word of Law then that is what it needs and to move onto the Gospel before repentance has come, then one has not acted properly. If this is Law (I do not know if I concede it) then it is a message we need to hear and repentance is not as common as we would like. Oh sure, with our mouths we all admit we do not measure up, but then what do we do with our actions…?

How many things could we put up with within the Church if there was active there the Love we see expressed in the NT? (Proving it can be done…)

The whole framework of how we ‘do Church’ in America makes it difficult to love in this manner. Or, if we concede that it happens (because it does), how difficult it is to perceive it. Let me illustrate.

Last month my family went looking for a new Church. We found one that seemed to have good doctrine, and they had all the modes of worship covered, including ‘contemporary.’ We went to the ‘contemporary.’ Three times in three consecutive weeks we went to this church: at no time were we greeted. At no time did anyone come to talk to us. At no point in the service (and this is true for almost every church of all types) was there an opportunity to reach out to visitors, unbelievers, or even other believers. Where was the love?

And there is something about our family that just screams “These are new people.” We are impossible to miss.

And would it be enough if we were greeted? Heck, we take that as bare minimum. The raw truth is that I expected out of none of the four churches we visited the last six months ANYTHING that could be construed as ‘laying down one’s life.’ In no congregation that I have ever been a part of has there been a hint of ‘laying down one’s life for another’ nor has there been any time when I might be asked to do the same for another.

I’m sorry, but being asked to be an usher doesn’t count. In fact, its an insult to the concept.

Does all this mean that love is not happening? Of course not. I cannot be more clear that it is. I think the people most likely to chafe at this note are those who are most likely to be a witness to the love. They see what goes on behind the scenes, and besides, they are, after all, the center of the action. Everyone goes to them, they are the one-size-fits-all solution to all of the congregation’s problems. The pastor may not like it, but the laypeople has come to expect it… and why? Can they really be blamed?

I digress on this tangent because there is a view out there that equated ‘love’ with ‘friendliness.’ Being greeted is still a long way off from ‘laying down one’s life for another.’ In short, the structure of the Church in America is built up so that pretty much the only thing you could pull off on a Sunday morning (the only morning when an unbeliever might conceivably see the community in action) is friendliness. And friendliness did not launch the Church from 0 to thousands upon thousands. ANYONE can be friendly.

Now, I know that I have raised a lot of questions and made a lot of comments that will evoke response. See how long this note is? It could have been 10 times longer. I am sorry in advance for anything that seems to be veiled accusations or unfounded assertions. I mean to accuse no one. I understand that I fall under the same verdict I have asserted. I know that many statements justify elaboration… and yet it took me 45 minutes to write this… I cannot promise to give full response as is deserved, though I might try to give some response. Like I said, I was asked to write this, even after I pointed out there will be loose ends. Take it for what it is worth from a mere layperson.

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